Those who shunned gun 23 years ago say it was the ‘best decision’
Mansbal: It was in 1998 that 23 teenagers from north Kashmir, who were on their way to cross the Line the Control to join militant ranks, decided they did not want to be part of the cycle of violence, and 23 years on, they feel it was the best decision.
The “kindness shown by the army” is something they cannot forget as it gave them a second lease of life, says Muzaffar Ahmad as he recalls the day when he, as a 15-year-old, set out with the others for his militant training from the Gurez sector.
Ahmad, who is now happily living with his wife and two kids, said he took the right step by not following the path of violence.
The Army helped the 23 rescued youths rejoin their families and made sure no cases were registered against them as that would have impacted their future. The force on Sunday celebrated their homecoming at an event in Manasbal Park here in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district that was attended by 19 of these youths and their families.
“They (Army) could have killed us in the forests, but they took care of us,” said another member of the group Showkat Ahmad Bhat, a resident of Bandipora.
According to the unit captain J S Budhwar, the army personnel had launched an operation to neutralise the militants in the area and were ready to open fire but stopped when they saw one of the boys who appeared to be in a bad state. The other youths quickly cried for help after the militants accompanying the group hid and the Army rescued them.
“Peace is the best option,” said Bhat.
Sonaullah, a resident of Ajas who was among those rescued, now has four kids – two sons and two daughters.
He said he is happy about the way his life has shaped after they tried to cross over to the other side.
“I thank the Army. I want to tell the youths to return home and be with their families,” he said.
Ahmad said that by celebrating their homecoming 23 years later, the message from the Army was clear that “if there is something wrong going on in your mind, change your attitude and take a good look at the world, it is very beautiful”.
“Islam teaches us peace and if you have to understand peace, understand it from Islam. Some people present it in a wrong way, do not fall in those traps,” he said.
He said the 23 boys wanted to cross the LoC for jehad as they “were doctored by some people that way”.
An Army official said “the boys were compelled to take the path of militancy through false promises by Abdul Hamid alias Bambar Khan”, a resident of Ganderbal,
Khan, “with the help of local sympathisers or OGWs, had got the 23 young boys either by force or through radicalization”.
“When we reached around Tulail, we had not eaten for two days and were not able to walk anymore. We thought we were leaving behind our life, our comfort and if we go ahead, then we will face these hardships there also. I could not see anything good in it then. So, we thought to return,” Ahmad said.
The 38-year-old man said the group made a good decision.
He said the army personnel then, especially the unit captain Budhwar, were “very nice” to them.
Recalling the incident, Budhwar – now a Brigadier – said the army had information about some suspicious movement in the area and presumed that the youths were militants who had infiltrated into this side.
“I have not witnessed such an incident ever. We went out to launch an operation to neutralise militants and cordoned off the area. We saw the movement there, our jawans were ready to open fire.
“Fortunately, I saw a very young boy in the trees and stopped the jawans from firing,” he said.
The militants accompanying the youths had run away taking cover of the thick foliage.
The youths, on seeing the soldiers, shouted for help and immediately surrendered.
The Army officer said as the forces went near the boy, they found him in a bad shape.
“We gave him water and talked to him. It was then that he told us about what was happening. So, we got hold of all of them one by one, took care of them and then handed them over to their families,” he said.
Budhwar said he felt very happy to meet them after 23 years and see how their life has shaped now.
Addressing the gathering, the General officer Commanding-in-Chief (GoC-in-C) of the Army’s Udhampur-based Northern Command, Lt Gen Y K Joshi, said there is no greater joy than being reunited with your family and loved ones.
“The story of these 23 individuals, who were forced and coerced to pick up weapons, get into a cycle of violence and become terrorists, is a grim reminder of a fact that there are many amongst us who are still, because of their vested interests and agendas, forcing the youth of Kashmir to pick up weapons and become terrorists,” he said.
“This is very sad because they are destroying not only the lives of these individuals but also the lives of their families and their loved ones,” Lt Gen Joshi said.
He said the story also reminds us of the fact that life will give you a second chance if you accept your mistake and come back to the mainstream.
“I am sure that these 23 individuals, when they look back, will be deriving a lot of satisfaction in the decision that they took 23 years ago to leave the gun and come back to their families,” he said.
The Army commander said he was totally overwhelmed when he saw the happiness on the faces of these youths and their family members.